Last updated in May 2019
Our planet is stuffed with stuff. Governments struggle to find ways and places to dispose of or to recycle our trash, and we keep adding to the heap.
Buying used items won’t just save you lots of money; it helps keep those purchases out of landfills. And getting an already manufactured product means no one has to make a new one for you, which saves resources and energy.
There are dozens of ways to find and buy goods that were owned by someone else: Local email groups, message boards, and listservs; websites and apps; friends and neighbors; yard and estate sales; thrift and consignment stores; and well-known mega retailers. Often, perfectly good, like-new secondhand merchandise is available for free; you just have to respond quickly to an announcement and go pick it up.
There are also several general online marketplaces offering an array of used goods, including Amazon Warehouse, Craigslist.org, eBay.com, Facebook Marketplace, Freecycle.org, letgo.com, and OfferUp.com.
In this article, we list our best bets for secondhand savings, plus buying advice for each type of merchandise.
Some safety precautions: If you’re meeting up with a private seller you found online, take along a friend. If possible, meet in a public place, and keep your phone handy. Trust your instincts: If you get a weird vibe or a deal seems too good to be true, bail.
The best way to prevent used-purchase snafus is to inspect the item before you buy it—but that’s not often an option when shopping online. If you receive something that doesn’t work or is in worse condition than advertised, you may or may not have recourse, depending on where you bought it and how you paid. If you can pay via credit card, that’s the best option, since you can dispute the charge with your company if there’s a problem. Online marketplaces like eBay and Amazon offer dispute resolution services. PayPal also lets you discuss problems directly with the seller and, if necessary, allows you to file claims; eBay decides if you deserve a refund. But if you pay a private seller using cash (often the only payment they’ll accept) or via the payment app Venmo, which doesn’t allow you to dispute transactions (it says it’s not designed for payment for goods or services), you’re likely stuck.
Is it usually a bit more work to seek out, evaluate, and purchase used? Yes, it is! Is it worth it? For many products, absolutely.
New parents often buy gadgets, products, and toys (fancy diaper disposal systems, wipe warmers, changing tables, monitors, swings) for their precious cherubs but then rarely or never use them. And because child-development phases pass quickly, even the helpful products that get used aren’t needed for long. That means the used marketplace has a glut of items moms and dads need—or think they need. Cribs, high chairs and other furniture, strollers, play kitchens, toys and games, LEGOs, train sets and other hobbies, water play tables…there are lots of opportunities to save.
You’ll probably want to thoroughly clean most items before letting your kids play with or chew on them. Soap and water will usually do the trick; or make a solution of a tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water to disinfect especially grubby stuff or anything likely to make its way into a mouth. Smaller items can be run through the dishwasher.
Thoroughly inspect merchandise for damage that might present a sharp edge or could otherwise injure your little darlings. Inspect furniture for peeling paint and missing parts.
For a crib, check www.cpsc.gov/recalls for recalls and make sure it meets current safety standards. Drop-side models, outlawed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2011, are an automatic no-no, and it’s illegal to sell those (although we saw them available used on some websites). In our shopping, we found it helpful to look for specific makes/models of cribs; otherwise there are just too many used ones available to parse through.
Used car seats could be compromised. Don’t buy one unless it was recently purchased and you know the previous owner well enough that you’d trust him or her with your kid’s life.
What we like best about buying used furniture: No assembly required! And if you score a deal on name-brand furniture (Bellini, Pottery Barn Kids, and others) and keep it in decent condition (hide those Sharpies), you can probably resell it to another smart shopper someday.
Local listservs, eBay, Craigslist, garage sales, and children’s consignment shops are good bets for finding used kid paraphernalia. Many communities offer periodic children’s clothing and toy sales, or swap meets, which can be a treasure trove for thrifty parents.
Kids quickly outgrow their rides, and adult pedalers often peddle their old ones. Plus, like cars, bike manufacturers introduce new models each year, which means you can sometimes find still-brand-new wheels from last year at a discount. And many bike shops sell secondhand cycles.
If a new-to-you bike needs work, our ratings of bike shops for quality and price will help you get rolling.
We love borrowing books and ebooks from libraries. For those who like to keep a collection of books at home, there are still a plethora of used-book sellers. Mega outlets Amazon and Barnes and Noble can connect you with resellers, many offering free shipping. Some local independents also have considerable online presences: Portland, Ore.-based Powells.com bills itself as the world’s largest independent bookstore and has a huge selection of pre-owned books; New York’s StrandBooks.com is another fun place to hunt, especially for rare or out-of-print titles.
While you can often save a lot by buying used copies of recent bestsellers for a buck or two, students can really cash in by acquiring or renting used textbooks. In addition to checking for secondhand stock at on- and off-campus bookstores and on eBay, college students can try Textsurf.com, which aggregates online sellers’ and rental services’ offerings (major players included in its searches are AbeBooks, Amazon, Chegg, and ValoreBooks).
Little Free Library is also fantastic. It provides public places for readers to leave and borrow books.
Because they are durable and retain most of their value even many years after being sold, cars account for the lion’s share of the money flowing through the used-stuff marketplace. They’re also a big source of headaches for consumers. If you find a stain on a top you bought at a yard sale, you’re out only a little cash; buy a lemon of a Lexus and the financial penalty of repairs can really sting.
Although buying used cars is less risky now due to availability of vehicle history reports via Carfax and others and several websites (KBB.com, Edmunds.com) supplying target prices, the business is still very much buyer beware.
State lemon laws don’t apply to used cars unless the seller provides the buyer with a written warranty.
Take any car you’re seriously considering to a mechanic you trust and ask for a thorough workup. You’ll find ratings of shops for quality and price here at Checkbook.org. Don’t trust that the seller has already done these checks, even if the car is “certified.” Any seller should readily allow you to take the car for a few hours to have it looked at. Dealerships might require some paperwork and deposits for these checks; make sure anything you sign clearly states any payments you make are fully refundable if you decide to back out of the deal.
Many experts say the smartest bet is to purchase a used car that’s only a couple of years old and in tip-top shape, then drive it into the ground. Doing so minimizes your up-front costs, since a new vehicle’s value depreciates steeply as soon as it is sold. And by getting a car with its manufacturer’s warranty still in effect, you can get free repairs if anything goes wrong during the first year or two.
But keep in mind that some makes—especially Honda and Toyota—are so popular for their reliability that they tend to depreciate at a slower rate than domestic or European brands, meaning you don’t lose too much by buying new.
We also find that our CarBargains service, which helps buyers get the best possible prices on new autos by initiating competitive bidding among local dealerships, often yields such low prices that its customers can buy brand-new cars for about the same prices as what CarMax and other fixed-price used dealers offer for models that are a few years old.
You can rummage at Goodwill and other thrift shops, which usually offer the lowest prices for secondhand threads. And there are still also a lot of local consignment stores.
That said, the online used clothing and accessories market has exploded in recent years. A bunch of websites collect wardrobes from across America for you to purchase from. Options include eBay, MaterialWorld.co, Poshmark.com, TheRealReal.com, ThredUp.com, Tradesy.com, and Vinted.com.
The used clothing arena is especially fruitful if you’re shopping for kids, who outgrow sizes heartbreakingly fast. Kids consignment shops and local swaps often yield very gently worn clothing and shoes for less. And when your first-grader wipes his greasy mitts on his shirt? No sweat! You paid only $2. Dressy duds are usually in almost perfect shape because most kids only wear them a handful of times.
If you’ve got a source for hand-me-downs, even better: No price is better than free. Work out trades with friends who have kids older or younger than yours. And when your kids are done with their clothes, make sure to send them down the line. It’s good karma.
Want to sell your stuff and earn cash for fresh fashions? See our article on “Clothing Resale Options” for our scoop on successful selling.
Because so many of us nerds trade up to get the latest, greatest devices, the electronics market is ripe for low-price picking. Although you can save a lot buying used tech vs. new, a lot of the secondhand stuff still comes with big price tags, which means the stakes are often higher than, say, nabbing a $10 tennis racket. And for computers, smartphones, TVs, and the like, it can be really difficult to determine if your deal includes a defective product.
So be careful who you buy from. We’d avoid private sellers unless you already know them or someone who will vouch for them. In other words, it’s fine to buy that $200 iPad if it’s from a friend of a friend who upgraded or never uses it.
Stuff that was returned because the buyer wanted something else is fine; in theory, that’s the same as buying new, but the box or packaging was unsealed.
Next-best are products refurbished by their manufacturers. You can still run into trouble, but most of these deals come with warranties and tech support. For example, Apple offers a one-year warranty on its refurbished phones, as does Samsung for its certified pre-owned phones. Dell offers a 100-day limited warranty and a 30-day guarantee on its refurbished machines. We’d happily buy under one of these plans, especially if it’s a gift for one of our accident-prone kids.
The problem is the latest models are rarely available used; you’ll have to settle for saving by buying something manufactured a couple digital generations ago.
While we think refurbished stuff sold by manufacturers is probably fine, we wouldn’t buy secondhand items from other (even well-known) retailers. You just can’t know where they got their products, or what (if anything) was done to refurbish them. While manufacturers like Apple promise “you will receive a ‘like new’ device with genuine Apple replacement parts (as needed) that has been thoroughly cleaned and inspected...with new battery and outer shell,” many other stores are hawking items that were returned because they were defective; the store or manufacturer has (hopefully) repaired them and then dumped them onto the secondary market. We’d rather buy something that was never defective.
The fitness industry thrives on good intentions. Lots of New Year’s resolvers buy pricey treadmills, stationary bikes, elliptical trainers, and cross-country ski simulators but then (often pretty quickly!) end up back on the couch bingeing Bravo and Netflix.
Their sloth is your reward. There are so many ex-exercisers that you can score rarely used equipment for free or nearly so. But because treadmills, ellipticals, and their ilk injure a lot of wannabe hardbodies, make sure your steal comes with its instruction manual or that you can find one online.
Because this sort of equipment is expensive to ship, search locally at yard sales, Craigslist and Freecycle, listservs, social media groups, and specialty consignment shops such as Play It Again Sports. Many people are happy just to have someone get big treadmills and such out of their homes, so you could very well end up with a free piece of equipment if you’re willing to haul it.
Unfortunately, the saying “They don’t make ’em like they used to” applies to most furniture sold today. Instead of buying crappy case goods and other furnishings, consider tracking down well-made older items.
If their bones are high-quality, you can reupholster sofas and chairs, refinish solid-wood materials, and otherwise restore and clean just about everything else. Click here for our ratings of upholsterers. We also have ratings of furniture repair shops. But before going that route, carefully inspect the item to decide whether it’s likely to last long enough to justify the cost of recovering or repair.
Ever tried to sell a used pool table, ping pong set, or other large rec-room toy for even a little cash? Fuggedaboutit. There are so many man caves with unwanted billiards sets and other space-hogging entertainment equipment that the secondhand market is awash in them. Sellers’ desires to reclaim some room means you can save big.
Before you commit to buying a pool table, get a plan for disassembling, moving, and setting it up again.
Board games are also plentiful in the secondhand market. Before buying, make sure sellers attest that all critical pieces are accounted for (Clue isn’t the same without Professor Plum or the candlestick).
You can still find some deals for used video game consoles and games, but now that most games are bought as downloads, rather than on cartridge or disk, many old ones are becoming retro collectibles, not bargains. GameStop is still around (for now) and sells a variety of used games and consoles. Amazon, eBay, Craigslist, and yard sales are also worth keeping an eye on.
Given that nearly half of American marriages end in divorce, there’s a large secondhand market for jewelry, especially diamonds. Sources include estate sales, eBay, Craigslist, DiamondBuyersIntl.com, TheRealReal.com, WPDiamonds.com, jewelry stores that sell vintage items, and, for the practical-if-unromantic, pawn shops.
If you choose to bargain-hunt gemstones, get one certified by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). But since GIA didn’t start issuing reports until 1953, gemstones in vintage settings may be hard to evaluate. Keep in mind that if you don’t like a setting, you can easily have the stones reset to your liking and still save a lot over buying retail.
If you go with person-to-person purchasing (eBay, Etsy, or Craigslist), beware of scams like phony GIA certificates, defective diamonds that have been treated, and more. Consider taking any expensive piece to an independent appraiser before finalizing the sale.
Most kitchens (or storage rooms) are full of gadgets, small appliances, and other nonessentials that have seen little use—and are ready to join your culinary arsenal.
Amazon sells household appliances via its Warehouse section, which offers open box or used goods to buyers for well below the price of new. But they don’t come with a strong guarantee (only a 30-day returns window).
Buying used major appliances is trickier. You may very well strike gold (or stainless steel) buying gently used appliances being offloaded due to a remodel. But you won’t get a guarantee or warranty from individual sellers. And delivery arrangements are on you.
Another option is to buy from a store that sells “scratch and dent” appliances, which are new but imperfect in some way and sold at big-time discounts. Carefully inspect to make sure you’re willing to put up with whatever is wrong with the unit, keeping in mind where it will live and how you’ll use it. If your laundry setup is out of sight to guests, who cares if the dryer has a scratch on the door? Another perk: These appliances usually come with the manufacturer’s warranty.
This one time at band camp there was a kid who aspired to be a professional oboist. But other interests interfered, so now her giant woodwind is in great shape and ready for another kid (yours) with bigtime Peter and the Wolf soloist dreams.
From band and orchestra instruments to pianos and guitars, shop secondhand for bargains that will be music to your ears (but brace yourself to hear “Hot Cross Buns” 10,000 times). Because there are so many used options available, focus your shopping on well-known brands with reps for good quality.
Local stores are great starting spots. Here at Checkbook.org, you’ll find ratings of area instrument shops that can advise you on important points—and possibly sell or rent you something at a good price.
Each type of secondhand instrument poses special concerns (mold and mildew inside woodwinds, dents in brass, missing head joints in flute cases), which makes buying online a little less appealing than in person: It’s best to check out these elements and give them a test run.
There are also tons of used pianos out there. Some are free, but you’ll still have to move them, and free ones are often so damaged they’re more trouble than they’re worth. When shopping for a used piano, ask lots of questions: How old is it? What was the original sales price? How often was it played (“every day” is better than “never”)? How often was it tuned/maintained? (You’ll also find ratings of piano tuners here at Checkbook.org.) Any existing damage? If you’re a serious musician or buying for someone with symphonic aspirations, buy from a trusted store that offers a strong warranty.
Sporting Goods and Uniforms
Because kids quickly outgrow soccer cleats, ice skates, batting helmets, and other athletic essentials—and their interests wane faster than you can say “taekwondo”—most used gear is in great condition. You can find used playthings and uniforms at stores like Play It Again Sports, eBay, children’s consignment shops, and by just asking other soccer/baseball/hockey/javelin moms and dads.
Unless you’re a professional contractor or handyman, chances are you don’t use your tool kit often. And most tools last a long time. That means there are a lot of gently used ones on the market. Yard sales and estate sales almost always have assortments.
What NOT to Buy Used
- You can buy used mattresses, vacuum cleaners, rugs, makeup, hats, bathing suits, and well-worn shoes, but to us, the yuck factor voids the potential savings.
- When your bike helmet becomes worn, replace it with a brand-new one. Old ones aren’t as effective, and any that are tested by accidents should be discarded.
- Some materials wear out more quickly than others. Especially avoid paying much for used items made of rubber (tires, rain boots) or with watertight seals.
- We’d buy used TVs and laptops from well-known retailers, but not from most private sellers. You just can’t know if they’ve been dropped or will function properly long-term.
- Unless you will test wiring and if necessary rewire them, avoid old lamps, which are sometimes fire hazards.
- Upholstered furniture (chairs, sofas, headboards) can be bargains secondhand, particularly if you’re thinking of recovering them. But calculate the extra costs to reupholster or steam clean. To avoid bedbugs, consider isolating items until you can thoroughly inspect and clean them—especially something bought at an estate sale or a curbside find.
- Used car seats could be compromised. Don’t buy one unless it was recently purchased and you know the previous owner well enough that you’d trust him or her with your kid’s life.